Sunday, July 19, 2009

Want Excellence in Education? Return to Reason

It is well documented that there is a problem with mainstream modern American education: many high school grads are unprepared for college level work; illiteracy in our culture has been increasing for decades; standardized test scores are up while the difficulty level is dumbed down; many are ignorant of basic science and history; many high school grads record poor writing skills, an index of poor thinking skills; businesses report that they are getting more and more people out of school who do not have the math, writing, reading, thinking and communication skills needed for the job.

To save education and the country, President Obama and Congress are pumping millions into education via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to improve the infrastructure of education, “reform” education, and get “better” teachers into teaching.

Another reformer, Alex Klein, writing in Education Week (“What I Want When I Teach,” June 11, 2009), proposes saving education through “merit pay”. Mr. Klein argues on the basis that “studies over the past 15 years have conclusively and consistently shown that the largest determinant for student success is teacher quality.” He suggests measuring “merit” with National Assessment of Educational Progress tests “coupled with...district- or school-level human evaluations.”

These proposals sound nice, but they hinge on the mainstream of education improving itself. Its track record, however, through all the other decades of “reform,” strongly indicates that it will hire and promote more of the same methods, ideas and curricula -- all of which it is holding onto with a passion -- that have gotten us where we are today. Teachers colleges, likewise, will continue to train teachers in the methods, ideas and curricula that have gotten us where we are, but with increasing vigor, since “reform” is ringing in the air.

The National Council of Teachers of English will continue to include sequencing a series of pictures in their definition of grammar; the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics will continue to de-emphasize or dispense with teaching proof in geometry and method in algebra; logic, induction and causality will continue to be absent from history, science, and the demands of writing; and “critical thinking” will continue to be used as smoke and mirrors to hide the absence of intellectual rigor in education as a whole.

All President Obama, Congress, Klein, and similar reformers will accomplish is funding ideas that have already failed.

The “reforms” we’ve heard so far have been superficial or of secondary importance, have drawn our attention away from the irrelevant and irrational ideas misdirecting modern education, and have drawn our attention away from what education is really about.

When we look at the results of mainstream modern American education -- poor writing skills evidencing poor thinking skills; illiteracy; historical and scientific ignorance; and more -- the evidence is overwhelming that, unfortunately, contrary to what we want to believe and to what we hear many educators say, we have a cultural and educational flight from reason: from grammar, induction, logic, proof, evidence. We need to get back to the basics.

We need to identify and promote the idea that the role of education -- contrasted with the myriad other institutions and activities in society and human life -- is to train the young to reason and to teach them the knowledge they need for work and adult life: literature, language, history, science, and mathematics. The rest is fluff.

Saving American education demands that we teach reasoning in the tradition stretching from Aristotle to Francis Bacon to Galileo Galilei to Maria Montessori to Ayn Rand. We must demand it of our educators.

We should teach, in all subjects, rigorous writing, grammar, logic, and proof.

Their importance, universality, and power is illustrated in the education of Abraham Lincoln: training in geometric, mathematical proof made him the thinker and writer he was in law and politics. He spent untold hours studying and memorizing the geometric proofs in Euclid’s Elements, a logical, structured presentation of geometry that has not been equaled since it was written in ancient Greece over 2,000 years ago. Via the Elements, geometric proof also had a profound influence on science, being a critical tool of thought for Galileo’s and Newton’s revolutionary work in physics.

And their great value and power over and above spoken and pictorial communication is identified by Dr. Walter J. Ong in "Orality-Literacy Studies and the Unity of the Human Race" (Oral Tradition, 2/1 (1987): 371-82): “ All science needs writing in order to achieve the tight, sequential, linear, ‘logical’ organization that science requires.” In “Literacy and Orality in Our Times,” Dr. Ong writes “Writing is an absolute necessity for the analytically sequential, linear organization of thought such as goes, for example, into an encyclopedia article. Without writing...the mind simply cannot engage in this sort of thinking, which is unknown to primary oral cultures.... Without writing the mind cannot even generate concepts such as ‘history’ or ‘analysis’... In the world of the creative imagination, writing appears necessary to produce” novels and stories with plots.

History is clear in demonstrating that when education focuses on reason, it works wonders. Ancient Greece, Renaissance Europe, and early America provide a plethora of examples. And the Middle Ages, Soviet Russia, Red China, the Khmer Rouge and human history before there was any education solidify the demonstration by contrast.

It is only when we return to the ideal of education as rigorous training in reasoning that the educational system of America will improve. Then we will have clear-cut standards for student performance, required subjects, testing, pedagogy, and teacher merit. Then we can “throw” money at education and have it improve. But then, we won’t need to.

Michael Gold, B.S. Mathematics and B.A. Philosophy, is owner of MGTutoring.com, a math tutoring service. He has been involved in education for over fifteen years, teaching in public and charter schools before starting his own private tutoring service. He also blogs on education and related issues at MGTutoring.com/blog.

(c) 2009 Michael Gold